03/19/2013 11:22 am ET Updated May 19, 2013

A Bell's Not a Bell 'Til You Ring It

Mark Twain called it the ugliest building in America, and Harry S. Truman called it "[t]he greatest monstrosity in America; but as we sat in a room on the second floor of what is now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), I was mesmerized by the parquet floors. As the conversation moved from sequester to comprehensive immigration reform and the participants discussed amnesty, the pathway to citizenship and what to do about the long line of potential immigrants who have been waiting for years to gain entry into the United States, I considered the finely cut sections of mahogany, maple and black walnut that fit together to create the geometric patterns that delicately dominated the room.

Some of my fondest childhood memories were sitting on my parents' parquet floor. Watching Roger and Hammerstein's musicals - from the King and I to the Sound of Music - I dreamed of a world wherein confronted with social inequality and conflict people broke into song. Three decades later, no one was singing at the EEOB. As the issue of how long undocumented immigrants should have to wait before gaining citizenship was debated, I thought about our nation's Adult English as a Second Language (ESL) system.

Managed by individual states with limited state and federal funding, the 'system' is made up of public schools, community colleges and private facilities that teach adults (who on average have been out of school for several decades and hold two to three jobs) how to read, write and speak English. In Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS), the fourth largest school district in the nation, these courses are offered during the day, at night, on the weekends and virtually, to promote completion. Currently, M-DCPS has 10,679 adult students enrolled in ESOL, 460 enrolled in ESOL literacy and 157 enrolled in ESOL Academic Skills. Many enroll in ESOL in the hopes of reaching the English proficiency needed to take the citizenship class and pass the exam that will allow them to claim the right of citizenship that they are entitled to.

These figures are important because, at present, the immigration bills being discussed and drafted have not clarified how a presently underfunded and disparate ESL system is going to withstand the influx of millions of new students. And while some states, through public schools and community colleges, are experimenting with lower cost digital options, others have taken the lack of regulation in this area too far and eliminated the need for ESL trained teachers altogether.

In Washington State, the Gates Foundation has stepped up to the plate with 3.5 million in funding for an ESL pilot program involving 250 immigrants. The pilot is a 13-week digital learning program that takes the digital divide into consideration and provides students with laptops that have a permanent Internet connection and language software. The students, however, receive in-class instruction from an 'English Coach' that is not ESL trained or certified. In cities like Miami, that are accustomed to large influxes of immigrants and the enclaves that result from the same, the latter trend is concerning. Furthermore, since digital learning was not available 25 years ago when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, wherein 2.7 million undocumented immigrants were required to enroll in at least 40 hours of English education prior to receiving their green cards, we are navigating uncharted waters. Interestingly, since the 1986 legislation did not require an exam, no information is available as to the effectiveness of the English language courses. This, however, is not surprising since most experts agree that English proficiency requires 400 to 600 hours of study.

Today, however, as we consider the fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants, of whom more than 50 percent do not have the English proficiency skills to pass the citizenship exam, we need to insure that the immigration bills include ESL requirements, safeguards and adequate funding. We need to be honest about the challenges faced by English learners, the lack of English learning options provided in most states, and the tools necessary to make a pathway to citizenship a reality. Because as Oscar Hammerstein wrote: "[a] bell's not a bell 'til you ring it, a song's not a song 'til you sing it." Immigration reform isn't comprehensive without English learning.